In a Bengaluru-based warehouse, Walmart-owned Flipkart has been revolutionising how its logistics team works. Over the last two months, Flipkart logistics employees are working alongside 100 bright orange robots, or Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs), which help them process 4,500 packages in an hour.
In a blog post on Flipkart Stories, the company said it is leveraging these tiny cuboidal robots which run 24*7 to run the vertical logistics chain.
An Idea And A 5-Month Dash To The Finish Line
Balamurugan N, architect – automation design and one of the key people behind introducing this technology at Flipkart, shared that the idea was first discussed sometime in March 2018. The team read about AGVs being used at a Chinese facility and realised that it could be a game changer for Flipkart.
Rajat Jain, principal program manager, shared that they were looking for a technology solution that could give them high throughput and high accuracy. “Tech that could scale up fast and was modular in nature — and help us become more space-efficient,” he said.
Sometime in early 2018, the team members made a quick trip to the Chinese warehouse to see the technology for themselves. “We spent a day at the site trying to understand the technicalities and brainstormed on how we could adapt this to solve for very unique Indian needs,” said Balamurugan.
The bigger question for the team was to understand how could this tech scale up to an Indian complexity. “The bots and software come from China, but to truly make it successful for our unique needs, we have pulled out all stops to Indianize this tech and really use it to solve for India,” said Balamurgan.
The complex AGV project — from drawing board to reality — was completed within an unimaginable deadline of five months. To meet tight deadlines, and to keep things working in parallel, the team set up a demo with two AGVs inside the Flipkart office.
Prabhu Balasrinivasan, senior director for procurement, who was tasked with finalising the right vendor for the ambitious project, the decision to introduce the AGVs was a call based almost entirely on a core Flipkart value of audacity.
“This is new technology and there is no data beyond the two years that they have existed. This was a calculated risk that we took,” he explains. The problems the procurement team solved for were safety, flexibility and cost optimization.
Breakdown Of Sorting Process
Here’s the breakdown of the logistics chain over three mezzanine floors:
- Customers place orders on Flipkart
- Packages are identified and dispatched from a Flipkart warehouse to Sortation Centre
- The incoming packages are transported on trolleys to the ground floor
- The packages are loaded on a conveyor belt
- On the second level, operators stationed at 6 locations along the conveyor belt pick up the packages
- Operators put these packages on the bots with barcodes facing up
- Bots pass under a barcode reader, which decodes the address and directs the bots to the corresponding chutes
- Bots drop the packages in chutes depending on the addresses
- The chutes on the lower levels are closed once they are filled
- They are then transferred to loading trucks
How Does This Benefit Customers?
The Flipkart team emphasises that with the use of bots in the process, they are able to ensure faster and safer delivery for Flipkart customers.
In a conventional set-up, the complete life-cycle of a package in the sortation center — from when it enters the facility until it is loaded onto a truck — is around one and a half hours. For a shipment to make it to the truck leaving at 10pm, it needs to be in the facility by 8pm — any later and they only go out the next day, making the delivery that much later for the customer.
“However, with the bots, even if a shipment comes in at 9.30 pm it can be loaded onto the truck at 10 pm. And the orders reach the customers a whole day earlier,” explains Balamurugan.
Going forward, the team believes that it can function out of smaller spaces within city limits and yet achieve higher productivity. The AGV setup also helps minimize the multiple touchpoints as compared to a manual process, where each shipment is touched multiple times.
The fewer the touchpoints, the less the chances of the shipment being damaged on its way to the customer, they say.
How Do Bots Benefit Flipkart Employees?
The bots take care of the more laborious functions of carrying multiple packages over ong distances and scanning, both repetitive and tedious tasks that can cause fatigue.
The team claims that with the help of the bots, packages at the facility are processed at twice the speed and with 99.9% accuracy, without burdening the workforce.
“The bots essentially complement the work that humans do,” explains Rajat. “In the long run, we are looking at higher throughput, which means we will need more manpower and bots. We are also creating an ecosystem that will include maintenance support, another area that will require skilled manpower,” he adds.
The team shared that so far the effect has very positive— the work is less stressful, interest levels have gone up, productivity has gone up and people are eager to learn even more.
Robotic Process Automation In India
Increasing demand for Business Process Automation (BPA) through the use of AI and software robots is anticipated to be the key growth-driving factor for the market. The global Robotic Process Automation (RPA) market size was valued at $357.5 Mn in 2017 and is expected to register at a compounded annual growth rate of 31.1% over 2018-2025, according to a market research report.
Driven by increased ecommerce and retail activity, the demand for warehousing space in India is on the rise. Robust leasing activity and government push will see demand for warehousing space in the country reach 20 Mn square feet in 2018, according to the ‘2018 Asia Pacific Real Estate Market Outlook – India’ report.
Technavio’s analysts forecast that the industrial automation and instrumentation market in India will grow at a CAGR of 6.85% during the period 2018-2022. In this light, Flipkart claims that bots are compact, modular, easy to maintain, and quick to deploy, enabling operations to scale up at lightning speed and giving Flipkart the flexibility to create distribution networks.
Balamurgan says that with all new, cutting-edge tech, there are iterations and room to evolve. The company wants to be the first to embrace those changes and bring in more new technology to India.